After raising $500M, Fred Moll’s Auris gets FDA nod for lung cancer robotic platform

A surgeon controlling Auris Health's Monarch Platform (Auris Health)

Fred Moll’s Auris Health has won FDA approval for its surgical robotics platform. The nod clears the Intuitive Surgical founder’s latest venture to sell the device for use in bronchoscopic diagnostic and therapeutic procedures in lung cancer patients.

Auris, formerly known as Auris Surgical Robotics, kept a low profile over its first decade but the few details that leaked out whetted appetites. The startup is founded and run by Moll, who played a key role in making Intuitive Surgical and its da Vinci Surgical System the defining company and device of the first era of robotic surgery. And it has raised a load of cash, with last year’s $280 million series D round moving the total up above $500 million. 

The takeover of Hansen Robotics, another of Moll’s former businesses, and FDA nod for a robotic endoscopy system gave some clues as to what Auris was doing, but a veil of secrecy hung over much of the operation. Now, Auris is holding its coming-out party. 

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Moll’s pitch to reshape the robotic surgery sector once again is the Monarch Platform. The platform consists of two robotic arms attached to a long, thin tube and a videogame-style controller that the surgeon uses to manipulate the device. The tube is inserted down the patient’s throat and into the lungs, all the while capturing video that is sent to screens in the operating room. The surgeon uses the controller to guide the tube to the target site in the lung where it performs the procedure.

Auris’ approval covers the use of the device in the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. Today, the tissue biopsies used to diagnose lung cancer are taken using manual bronchoscopes. These devices are less flexible and controllable than Monarch’s tube, making it harder for them to reach the site of the possible tumor to get the sample needed to make an accurate diagnosis. 

If Monarch works as Auris hopes, it will improve the diagnosis of lung cancer, leading to better outcomes. That would represent a significant advance but it is just the first step on Auris’ roadmap. A Bloomberg article stated Auris' goal is to do away with the input of surgeons altogether and hand total control to the robot. Auris has distanced itself from that position but not the idea that AI will play an increasing role in surgical procedures.

“We see an opportunity for the application of AI to interventional procedures as a way of augmenting physician technique, but we fundamentally believe that AI will rely heavily on human judgement for the complex tasks that are encountered in health care. As a result, we see AI as a profound way to enhance the physician's role in patient care, not replace it," Josh DeFonzo, chief strategy officer at Auris, said.

As with driverless cars and other fields in which humans are ceding control to AI, robotic surgery may have to deal with the question of when the input of people becomes more of a hindrance than a help at some point down the line. For now though, Auris is betting that human-AI collaborations will be more effective than either intelligence alone.

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